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Saint Paul and Apple Valley high schools win federal redesign grants

High schools in Saint Paul and Apple Valley are among the winners of the Obama administration's latest national grant competition -- an effort to boost career and college preparation.

Saint Paul won $3.7 million in the competition, and the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district lined up $3 million. They were among 24 districts to score grants Monday in the Youth CareerConnect contest, a joint effort by the federal Education and Labor departments. A total $107 million in grants will go to high schools to cultivate more college-credit opportunities, career exploration programs, internships and hands-on activities.

The contest called on districts to team up with local higher education institutions and employers to provide more opportunities for students to build real-world skills.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the grants would help prepare "the next generation of highly skilled workers in Minnesota."

"I am proud that two of our state's school districts were selected by President Obama and the U.S. Department of Labor to spearhead this national movement to strengthen career preparation for our youth," Cassellius said in a statement.

The Obama administration has employed such national grant competitions to nudge states and districts to embrace federal priorities, from teacher evaluation to early childhood education. But such contests have angered some educators who say they pit school districts and states against each other.

The latest grant competition is a reflection of a recent national focus on career and technical education amid concerns about the country's global competitiveness. The grant money comes from fees U.S. companies pay to line up visas for foreign workers in specialized jobs.

Apple Valley High School will use the grant to complete a transformation as the go-to school for students from the district's magnet programs focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Next fall, the school will offer more classes in those fields, including some on weekends, online and as an independent study. Faculty from Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College will teach some of the classes.

The school also would host a new fabrication lab with three-dimensional printers, laser cutters and other technology.

A half-dozen companies have signed up to be part of the initiative at the school, including Delta Airlines and Lockheed Martin. They will offer input into school programs, internships and mentoring to students.

"What's really exciting about this grant is that we have so many partners," said Cathy Kindem, the district's coordinator of innovative educational programs. "They'll be playing a vital role in helping us integrate real-world skills and experiences in the classroom."

Kindem said a goal of the Apple Valley High overhaul will be to attract more students of color, English learners, girls and first-generation college students -- groups traditionally underrepresented in those fields.

The Saint Paul district will use the money to launch a new Academy of Information Technology at Humboldt Senior High School. It also will help expand the recently created Academy of Finance at Como Park High, which features a student-run credit union branch.

In both districts, the effort will continue to support participating students into their first two years of college. Saint Paul will tap its existing partnerships with Saint Paul College, employers such as Travelers Insurance and Wells Fargo Bank and other organizations.

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.